I recently conducted two informal surveys about sex and intimacy; one survey went out to men in their 20s and 30s, the other to women of the same ages. While I did expect there to be some overlap in the free-response format, I didn’t expect the overlap to be so consistent in both sets. We’re still confused about how the sexes experience sex, and probably a little jaded from past experiences.
I originally started working in the relationship space to sort out unspoken gender dynamics in a world that’s trying to erase them for emerging generations. While it’s great we’re moving toward a place of equality between the sexes, you can’t erase the impact of the ingrained and socialized roles in heterosexual relationships in one fell swoop.
I posed one question to women: “If you could ask men absolutely anything you wanted about sex and intimacy, and get a 100 percent truthful answer, what would you want to know?” The response was fairly consistent: Most women wanted to know when sex was more than just a physical act, and/or if men actually respected the women they had slept with.
On the male side, I also asked an important question: “What do you think women get wrong about men when it comes to sex and intimacy?” Men felt they were unfairly typecast as emotionally distant, and “only out for sex,” as one early-twenties guy put it. Some said they thought women believed men don’t want emotional intimacy at all. Another felt that almost all men grow to a point where they seek substance over sex.
If we read between the lines here, I think we can bridge some key gaps between the sexes. However, before we move further, I want to pause and explicitly state the important thing nearly all the men I surveyed said (which women seemed subsequently confused about):
Men are not just out for sex.
As a whole, the millennial generation is the most emotionally in-tune generation of all time — especially the men, since it’s a departure from the past. Let me highlight and underline some of the millennial guys’ answers, and cross them with what women asked or implied.
Gap #1: Sex can just be a physical act … but that isn’t guys’ preferred mode of operation.
While nearly two-thirds of the men I surveyed said they only needed to feel physical attraction to have sex (versus just 30 percent of women in the anonymous survey), that wasn’t always the case. And they definitely wanted more. “From experience, and within my close group of five guy friends, we are looking for substance across the board,” one guy in his late twenties claimed. “At one point I’ll admit sex was a priority — but at this point in my life, I want to form meaningful relationships. Intimacy is obviously a large part of that, but is it not nearly the whole story.”
If you want sex to just be sex, then this probably isn’t a huge concern; let your relationship unfold as you see fit, and see if the emotional intimacy develops. However, notice there’s a gap up there between the women who said they could see sex purely as a physical act and men who could engage with prospects that way. If you want a two-way emotional connection with someone, you have to wait to have sex until that develops. For both parties. It’s best to delay until you feel that person is sufficiently opening up to you, and you’re getting beyond the realm of surface-y small talk.
One guy summed it up simply; although this should be obvious, I think women still feel outside pressure to move faster than they’d like: “If you want to build a relationship with someone, it’s OK to say no to sex,” one man explained. “See if the guy sticks around.” We’re not reinventing the wheel here; this age-old tactic is still the best tactic if you’re not sure how emotionally invested he is.
Gap #2: Oftentimes, a man’s “only out for sex” phase is a short-lived phenomenon … but the remnants last long after.
While writing my own book, I talked to sociologist Lisa Wade, PhD, whose book American Hookup opened my eyes to the ripple effect of sexual relations in college and university. The sex-driven culture on campus often leaves the majority of young people feeling unsatisfied with their relationships, and doesn’t exactly exist in a vacuum; it sets the stage for intimacy and dating after college, too. Most women who’ve “dated” on campus have been burned at least once or twice by bad intentions, which makes them wary of guys for a long while after.
Most guys grow and mature emotionally as they enter the workforce and actually learn to date in the real world (completely different from campus culture). In fact, most of the guys I surveyed indicated they’d grown out of that sex-driven phase by around thirty — which, hey, age of first marriage is hovering around 29 right now for guys (and 27 for women). That said, it’s not like women conveniently forget what it feels like to meet a “detached” guy or feel “disrespected” by him.
One of my mantras for women, hard as it is: Don’t blame the guy you’re currently dating for the sins of the guys who’ve burned you in the past. Not only is it unfair to your dating prospects, it’s a prison that will keep you from building healthy relationships moving forward. Instead, filter for qualities of character — like honesty, communication, effort, follow-through — that your younger, campus-age self might have ignored.
Gap #3: Men’s emotions probably present differently than women’s … but they’re no less significant.
Men and women are both similar — and different — but probably more similar than we think. We could discuss and debate to what extent the sexes converge and diverge all day, but let’s leave it as this: The vast majority of us have the same end goals in relationships.
Most of the men and women I’ve talked to desire a healthy, stable long-term relationship with a compatible partner, although their journeys to that end goal are paced differently. Most of the men and women I’ve talked to also have a significant undercurrent of emotion running through their relationships, too, although that emotion might present differently. This is especially true between the sexes.
While men certainly know how they feel, most of them haven’t been raised to show how they feel. From the time we’re children, for instance, marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, explains how even play time can tie to long-ranging relationship-building tools like conflict resolution and emotional understanding. Girls’ games are often emotionally-fueled; if feelings are hurt, the game stops until they’re resolved. Boys’ games have little room for emotion at all; if feelings are hurt, they’re quickly tossed aside and reminded that “boys don’t cry.”
It’s no wonder men have internalized a need for stoicism in a way women have not — and when it comes to sex, that “detached, men-feel-nothing” stigma still exists. “While men approaching sex on a more physical level might be true in part, in my opinion, emotions still play a major role for guys,” one guy in his late twenties explained. “The only problem is that men communicate this differently, or in a more ‘toned down’ way, than women do — which I think is a major reason for conflict. Women might misinterpret certain things, or get things wrong.”
This is perhaps the most important tool in your relationship-building kit:
Start conversations; stop assuming.
If you want to know something that you’re unsure about, like if he’s open to a relationship or what he wants from you specifically, ask; as women, you’re at least socialized to start those emotional discussions more effectively.
Don’t assume that all men are the same. Don’t assume that actions are the same as intentions. Don’t assume his emotions will present as obviously and visibly as yours might. Don’t assume that sex and relationships are connected (or that they aren’t). Instead, be direct. Very direct. Lots of women ask indirect questions and read between the lines. Wait for an answer, and make sure the person’s actions then align with their words.
We often avoid clarifying communication because we’re afraid of the answers. But if you want to have better relationships (and sex), you have to command it through open dialogue and filter for compatibility. Don’t try to force a relationship narrative onto a guy who only wants sex, and then become defensive and wary of men thereafter. If he says he’s not looking for anything serious, and you need that to be on the table, he’s out. Plain and simple.
There are plenty of guys who want the whole nine yards (sex + emotion + commitment), who will also tell you with words (if you ask) and show you with action (more frequently). If you want it, you just need to filter for that upfront — before sex enters the picture.
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Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.